What Modern-Day Demagogues Stole from Ancient Greece

by on 2 December 2018

Ιs to be believed better than to reason well?

It is an age-old tradition to thank the Greeks for bequeathing to us the norms of science, philosophy and democracy. And yet these unfathomably broad concepts, surely too fundamental to be assigned to any one civilization, fail to capture the dichotomy of their present-day influence.

This is unsurprising. After all, history is written by writers. It is the work of Plato and Aristotle that was best preserved, and this in part explains why it is their enlightened principles that have come to characterize an era. Yet behind these men of letters lies the unmistakable influence of an orator — their tutor, Socrates. His relentless questioning of the knowledge of others eventually labeled him a heretic and a “corrupter of the youth,” a crime he would pay for by voluntarily drinking hemlock. It is his speeches, recorded by Plato, that would define the dialectic method employed by philosophers for centuries to come.

Today, however, its most visible representatives are journalists — particularly those who work in states inhospitable to probing minds. An individual who epitomizes the modern Socratic is the late Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. In speaking out about the repressive conditions in Saudi Arabia, he refused to compromise in the name of truth, and his murder at the hands of Saudi agents reminds us that state-sponsored execution is more than a relic of antiquity.

So the example of Socrates has not been forgotten. But perhaps a subtler, more pernicious influence has also remained: the sophists. These Athenian intellectuals made money from teaching rhetoric, and their movement has become synonymous with cleverly contrived but ultimately fallacious arguments. Ever since Plato, their theories have been dismissed as the work of rapacious charlatans, whose verbose speeches consisted of little more than philosophical sweet talk. And yet their methods likely sound familiar. Now, to call everyone who uses rhetoric to bolster weak arguments a disciple of sophistry would be to exaggerate. The sophist must first be distinguished from the common quack.


Money-making and colorful language are elements conspiracy theorist Alex Jones shares with the sophist. Posing as a champion of free speech and truth, his “theories” range from the disturbing (the Sandy Hook shooting was “fake”) to the patently absurd (feminists “are the zombie hordes of the apocalypse programmed by cat piss worms”). His official website, Infowars, also touts costly dietary supplements with names as inspired as the Real Red Pill and Super Male Vitality.

Unlike the sophists, however, Jones’ arguments make no real pretense of intellectual skill. He also portrays himself as a target of the establishment, giving his listeners the news “they don’t want you to know.” Conversely, the sophists were the intellectual mainstream; their tutoring coveted by the great patricians of their time. Where Jones plays up to the mistrust amongst the marginalized, the sophists do the opposite: They disguise their mysticism by appealing to our natural trust of intellectuals.

A similar case is the right-wing provocateur and self-described “cultural libertarian” Milo Yiannopoulos. Once writing a cryptic book of poetry under the pen name Milo Andreas Wagner, he at least has the ego of a sophist. He also prefers rhetoric over debate, claiming that his most controversial work (see “birth control makes women unattractive and crazy”) is in fact satiredesigned to “challenge the biases of those who don’t want to be challenged.” However, a sophist uses rhetoric to persuade rather than to merely provoke. At any rate, it is hard to imagine the ancient Protagoras referring to himself as a “dangerous faggot.”

Through this brief analysis of what does not constitute a modern sophist, we should now have a better idea of what does. First of all, he uses lofty but unintelligible jargon as a means of persuasion. He eschews rationally convincing argument. He portrays himself as a member of the intellectual elite. He seeks public respect as well as financial reward.


Public intellectual and internet sensation Jordan Peterson is a perfect fit. A psychology professor at the university of Toronto, he is certainly part of the academic establishment. Moreover, much like the sophists, Peterson does not limit himself to lecture rooms. The internet provides his largest audience by far — his YouTube videos alone drawing over 70 million views. He also receives around $80,000 a month from the crowdfunding website Patreon. Unlike Socrates, his youth pay dearly for their corruption.

The favored weapon of a sophist is, of course, his tongue, and this is where Peterson excels. Across the internet, his fans post montages of Peterson’s “best comebacks” and clips of him “destroying” his oratorical opponents. His academic work, while less marketable, is equally revealing. Take the following extract from Peterson’s Maps of Meaning: “The automatic attribution of ‘meaning’ to ‘things’ — or the failure to distinguish between them initially – is a characteristic of narrative, of myth, not of scientific thought. Narrative accurately captures the nature of raw experience. Things are scary, people are irritating, events are promising, food is satisfying — at least in terms of our basic experience. The modern mind, which regards itself as having transcending the domain of the magical, is nonetheless still endlessly capable of ‘irrational’ (read motivated) reactions.”

Peterson has, of course, his own particular sense of the word “meaning.” His version refers only to things that are intangible, and thus do not exist in the real world of hard facts. Yet he fails to explain why propositions about things that do not physically exist are in some way irrational. Which is strange, because this is the basis of Peterson’s entire psychological standpoint: If these so-called action-guiding propositions were rational, there would no longer be a need for any unconscious translation process, and the analysis of myths would no longer contain the essence of morality.

Instead of an explanation, Peterson assures us that this is “virtually self-evident.” But how so? While it is true that descriptions like “things are scary” are different to those we find in the sciences, this does not make them irrational. To say something is scary may refer to an internal state, but this would only be possible if we first had an external image to compare this with, for example, a scared face, a scream, a flinch. If we did not have this, then we would need to see something scary just to understand what the word meant. Which is a problem, because then the word would not really communicate anything at all.

The point is that meaning in Peterson’s sense of the word is not so different from meaning in the conventional sense — it needs to communicate something. To communicate something, we must have grammar. For this we must have rules, which in turn must have a verifiable correct use. As a result, no amount of mythical analysis would allow us to “mean” things that exist beyond the logic of the observable world. Peterson is free to deny this. But at the very least he needs to explain why. His failure to do so reveals his theory to be no more than a rhetorical device, and yet it is the surface persuasiveness of this device that distinguishes Peterson as a talented sophist.


Talented, but not alone. A fellow purveyor of high-brow fallacy is neuroscientist and prominent atheist Sam Harris. An occasional adversary of Peterson, Harris is another instance of a public intellectual. His brand of sophistry combines baseless slogans (“certainty about the next life is incompatible with tolerance in this one”) with cryptic pseudoscience.

Unlike Peterson, Harris tends to favor vagueness over complexity. Where the former builds arguments from disguised non-sequiturs, the latter uses the language of reason to disguise meaningless tautology, such as “the spirituality which is compatible with scientific rationality is to take spiritual experience as data confirming that such experiences are possible.” Selling T-shirts as well as ideas, Harris’ commercial aspect is also far less subtle.

Over millennia, the school of the sophists has diversified. Peterson and Harris represent only two varieties. It is inevitable that many more exist. While Peterson and Harris are commonly (although perhaps unfairly) identified with the alt-right, sophistry is not a political movement. Its members are to be found throughout the spectrum. From the Marxist guru to the die-hard libertarian, their chameleon quality is part of what that makes them so effective.

Exposing them all is a task worthy of Sisyphus. In an age where the speed of our speech counts just as much as its content, fast-talking rhetoric has an obvious advantage. Much like the Hydra of Euripides, new voices will more than replace those that have been discredited. Conversely, ignoring them is not to be advised either. Just as execution failed to shut up Socrates, excluding sophists from the public discourse would make them even more dangerous.

It seems that the only ground for a fair fight is to be found in ourselves. While we might not be able to stamp out sophistry in the world around us, we can at least abstain from it in our own arguments. This itself is no small endeavor. It is only too easy to convince ourselves of our own rhetoric, especially when we see how persuasive it can be to others. Moreover, as we see from the demise of Socrates, the fruit of reason is not often sweet. Thus, fittingly, the legacy of the ancient Greeks takes the form of an open-ended question, one that underlines the choice between sophistry and reason: Is to be believed better than to reason well?

BY   JACK RIDDICK – fairobserver.com